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Power of language
Adult literacy program volunteer finds English-speaking skills open up 'whole new world' for students

  • Jaqueline Priess Kelsey tutors Rudy Garcia Lopez in English at the Rincon Valley branch of the Sonoma County Library as part of its literacy program on Thursday, March 8, 2012. ((BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat))

Once a week, Jaqueline Priess Kelsey settles into a quiet corner that doubles as her classroom at the Rincon Valley Library in east Santa Rosa.

A volunteer tutor with Sonoma County Library's adult literacy program, Priess Kelsey's lone student is a 51-year-old landscaper, Rudy Garcia Lopez, who came from Guadalajara, Mexico, to the United States more than 30 years ago.

The subject for each two-hour session is reading and writing in English, including grammar, rules for verb conjugation and tricks for improving reading comprehension.

But the aim of the free program is something larger: to break down a language barrier and support goals — personal and professional — that couldn't be met otherwise.

In Garcia's case, that meant a year of test preparation for U.S. citizenship, which he earned in January and quickly put to work, voting on a parcel-tax measure linked to hospital funding in his hometown of Sonoma.

"It's a whole new world for him," said Priess Kelsey, a 45-year-old mother of two who goes by "Jackie."

An immigrant herself, having come to the United States from her native Brazil 22 years ago, Priest Kelsey also earned her U.S. citizenship recently.

She said her South American background, despite the difference with her native tongue of Portuguese, has helped her relate to Garcia and the experience of Spanish-speaking Latino immigrants.

"It's important to know about their culture," she said.

Before moving to Sonoma County in 2010, she held paid and volunteer teaching and interpreter positions in Philadelphia and Florida. Last year, she joined the county's ranks of literacy tutors.

The library's program is one of more than a half-dozen local efforts focused on improving English literacy in adults.

Currently, the county's 145 tutors serve more than 155 students, with 60 more on waiting lists, largely in Santa Rosa and Sonoma.

The program was hit last year with a $40,000 state funding cut — effectively a 20 percent budget cut — and faces further reductions being considered by county library commissioners.

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